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Next stop, Ho Chi Minh City, or you may know it as Saigon

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

When you do a trip of this length, sometimes places become repetitive, the exoticism begins to fade when you’ve seen your 100th wat and eaten your 100th fried rice, but there are many things that still cause that twinge of excitement. One of them is visiting a place, that you’ve imagined in your mind since childhood.

Born several years after the end of the Vietnam War, the only real knowledge I had of it came from Hollywood, Broadway and a couple of lectures in history class. Learning about it through these mediums, despite how gory or heart-wrenching it sometimes was, added a sense of romance and something exotic. I can honestly say now that any romantic or exotic notions I ever had about war have disappeared, but the curiosity about the places has remained.

So when we arrived in Saigon, I had no real expectations about what we would see. I only knew that this place that I only knew from movies was about to become real.

Saigon, officially named Ho Chi Minh City, after their beloved liberator, is orderly and manic in the same time. Over 8 million inhabitants buzzing around the city on over 2 million motorbikes; the roads appear to be complete chaos, cluttered with traffic, no proper crosswalks and traffic signals that everyone ignores- magically it all seems to work. Zen is the key to survival; when you step onto the road with hundreds of headlights rushing towards you, the key is to remain calm and fluid and believe that you will reach the other side.

The buildings (like the ones we saw in Chau Doc) are tall and narrow, brightly painted in pastel colors with pretty balconies and rooftop gardens. The ground levels are occupied with cafes,clothes shops, noodle shops and chic restaurants. The city is on the move, and their was no question on a Friday night that many of those chic restaurants were dominated by the locals and not the tourists.

We stayed in the tourist ghetto, the Ko San Road of Saigon. We were snatched up when we got off the bus by a guy advertising rooms for $6, it was in our budget and only 100m walk. It was hard to tell that our place was an offical hotel (our room was clean and modern though sometimes stifling hot) but there was no advertising from the outside, and each time we came in and out, we had to pass through the family’s alleyway noodleshop and their living quarters.

We started our visit of the city with the Ho Chi Minh City museum, with pretty architecture, it was a popular site for wedding pictures and on a Monday afternoon we saw at least three wedding couples posing for pictures. The museum gave us some interesting information on the resistance period against the French and later the Americans and the fall of Saigon (or liberation of Saigon depending which side you were on.) Outside there was an interesting display of old French cars (Renault and Peugot) from the 40’s and 50’s (they were on display because they played a historical role in the city, like transporting a resistance fighter, etc.) They also had a tank and plane confiscated from the Americans.

We then made a nice a little walking tour, to see the main post office, an impressive building left over from the French colonical time across the street from the Notre Dame cathedral. From the outside it resembled the Notre Dame Paris, except for the fact it was built out of red brick. We then made our way to the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), another reminder of colonial architecture, but a bit more foo foo and out of place among the modern Asian architecture. Our last stop, the waterfront, where we saw numerous cargo ships, an enormous cruise ship, and a bunch of kids splashing around in the muddy water who tried to get our attention by showing us their backsides. We splurged and ate authentic Italian pizza, a pleasant and needed break from rice and noodles.

Having been quite happy with our tour in the Mekong Delta, we used the same company, the Sinh Cafe, to book a day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the CaoDai temple. Once again we had an Asian-Elvis tour guide, who loved to talk. Unfortunately his accent was so bad, most of us had a headache by the end of the day and Fabien was ready to put in his earplugs. We did see some very interesting places though. The first stop, the CaoDai temple. CaoDaism is a Vietnamese religion founded in the 1920’s which blends the beliefs and practices of all of the major world religions. The three most influential religions in CaoDaism are Taoism, Confuscianism and Buddhism. There are over 2 million followers in Vietnam. The temple resembles a Christian cathedral in shape and size; the exterior is ornately decorated in bright pastel colors. It looks a little bit like something Disney created. The most important decorations on the outside are the lotus flowers and the left eye (or Holy See) which is the symbol of the religion. Eyes peer out at you from everywhere. On the interior of the temple, the floor is staggered, getting higher and higher as you move towards the altar, which is a giant sphere with the eye painted on it. Columns separate the center area from the aisles and they are decorated with colorful dragons. We were able to stay and watch a service from the balcony above. At the beginning, there was a procession of monks in robes of red, blue and yellow (representing the 3 most influential relgions), then the followers dressed in white. The service consisted of a chanting of the prayers with background music, while the followers kneeled on the floor. As it was created in Vietnam, the Caodaism religion is a source of pride for Vietnamese people who are predominately Buddhist with a sizeable Christian population.

After the temple, which was a 3 hour drive from Saigon, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. An enormous underground network of tunnels (75 miles in total) which were used by the Viet Cong (guerilla soldiers) during the Vietnam War. There were kitchens, clinics and dining halls underground, which was split into 3 levels. We went about 100 m through one of the upper level tunnels. It was quite small and claustrophobic, difficult to imagine people living down there for years. There were huge bomb craters around the area, a remnant from the frequent air raids. One part of the exhibition was a shooting range where interested tourists could practice shooting an AK47. Thankfully no one in our group took the challenge. It’s strange to see a place like this as a tourist attraction, but as it was the area where some of the most decisisive fighting occured, the Vietnamese are quite proud of it.

I had a good feeling when I left Saigon, good feelings about the vitality of the country. Our next stop…Mui Ne, China Sea paradise.

The Mekong Delta, “Breadbasket of Vietnam”

Friday, April 14th, 2006

In reality, it’s the rice basket. The Mekong Delta, where Asia’s 3rd largest river meets the China sea, feeds a country of 80 million and supplies rice to the rest of the world. Vietnam is the world’s 2nd largest rice exporter (after Thailand.)

We organized a 3-day tour of the Mekong Delta in Phnom Penh (they don’t really try to market it, but you can book it through the Capital Guesthouse.)  The first day was spent traveling by boat on the Tonle Bassac to the Vietnam border. Both the Cambodian border posts and Vietnamese border posts were more official looking than those coming from Laos.  After lunch at the border, we had another 3-hour boat trip to Chau Doc, a pleasant little town dominated by it’s riverfront location. I was immediately taken with the narrow, little apartment buildings painted in bright colors and the numerous outdoor cafes. They have adopted the Parisian style of sitting with both chairs facing the street, so you can stare at life (mainly scooters) passing by. Since our hotel was included in the tour package, we also had a bit more upscale accomodation than we are used to, complete with air conditioning.

The next morning started early (around 7:30.) We took a traditional wooden row boat in which rower stands at the stern and pushes the oars (which are tied to a lever) in a rocking motion. (It’s hard to describe in words, but it looks incredibly awkward.) We passed a floating village with hundreds of floating houses, literally one family houses on pontoons. We also visited a fish farm where they were breeding cat fish, and a local Cham village on an island. The Chams are primarily Muslim, apparently the Malaysians brought Islam to this area, so there were several nice mosques in the village.  From there, we drove to Sam Mountain (more of a hill) where there is a good view of the Cambodian and Vietnamese border. Fabien and I were the only two of the group who went all the way to the top by foot, and I was cursing him the last 15 minutes of the climb. The path up was a set of never ending stairs through a cemetary, then food stalls and souvenir vendors, and finally shrines related to various religions.  The border consisted of a few rows of trees separating the rice paddy fields. We made another stop at the Mekong Crocodile farm, where they raise crocodiles for export to China. After a busy day of sightseeing, we arrived in Can Tho, another important city on the Mekong Delta. Can Tho also had a pretty waterfront, dominated by a statue of Ho Chi Minh. We found a cheap little restaurant next to the river, where I had an excellent meal of grilled prawns and mango. 

Our 3rd day also started with a boat trip. We visited the Cai Rang Floating Market. There are literally hundreds of longtail boats and barges selling all types of fruits and vegetables, rice, and fish. There are even small boats selling sodas and coffee (floating cafes) and floating noodle shops.  We also visited a place where they make rice paper and a tropical fruit garden.  Finally, we got the bus for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) around 3 in the afternoon. We arrived in Saigon last night, a shock from the quiet life of the delta; it’s a big, noisy city. More about Saigon to come.


Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s Capital

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006
After spending a record 5 days (and nights) in Siem Reap),we left for the capital city, Phnom Penh. We arrived in the middle of Saturday afternoon at the Central Market, which also serves as a bus station. Phnom Penh ... [Continue reading this entry]

Ancient ruins, strange cuisine, natural beauty…Cambodia

Monday, April 10th, 2006
Kratie is a little town on the Mekong, popular with tourists because it is another place where you can see the Irawaddy river dolphins. We passed up a second viewing, and spent a day and half there just taking it ... [Continue reading this entry]

Welcome to Cambodia…an unusual border crossing

Sunday, April 9th, 2006
From southern Laos to Stung Treng, Cambodia, it is possible to cross the border (and despite all of the published information, it is possible to get a Cambodian visa.) We actually got our Cambodian visa in Vientiane, so we were ... [Continue reading this entry]

Vientiane and Southern Laos

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Vientiane, the capital of Laos is a quiet little town with good food and an easy going atmosphere. It hardly feels like a capital city; the tallest building in town is a newly constructed luxury hotel. We spent our days visiting ... [Continue reading this entry]

Only in Asia

Friday, March 24th, 2006
We've seen a lot of interesting things these last 6 months in India and Southeast Asia. I'm beginning to wonder if there is anything left that could shock us.  For example, Fabien and I were walking along the bank of ... [Continue reading this entry]

Vang Vieng

Friday, March 24th, 2006
Our trip from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was relatively uneventful. The scenery,however, was spectacular as we drove through the mountains. Unfortunately, they are in to slash and burn agriculture here, and they are burning a lot of the hillsides, ... [Continue reading this entry]

What the future holds…

Saturday, March 18th, 2006
Fabien and I have been working hard on this blog to tell you about our travel adventures...maybe you're interested in our plans after the "big trip."  Our trip will come to an end in just over 2 months.  We will fly back ... [Continue reading this entry]

Luang Prabang- a little Laotian/French cultural heritage

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the Siam, is a Unesco heritage site, and said to be one of the best preserved towns in southeast Asia.  We arrived here a couple of days ago, after a grueling 3 hour ride ... [Continue reading this entry]